Category Archives: Plants

Separating The Seeds From The Floss

Milkweed seed pods, December 2011 (photo by Kate St. John)

25 November 2020

Looking for something to do this Thanksgiving weekend? You could help next year’s monarch butterflies by planting milkweed in your garden.

Milkweed seeds have to get cold before they’ll germinate (cold stratification) so late fall is the best time to plant them outdoors. Take a walk and gather some milkweed pods. (Leave some behind for nature!) Remove the floss and plant the seeds.

Separating the floss from the seeds can be time consuming if you don’t know these tips.

When the pods are about to burst you can pop them open, grab the bundle tightly and push the seeds off with your thumb.

However, many pods have already burst in southwestern Pennsylvania so you’ll want to use a “mechanical” method to separate the floss.

Milkweed pod burst open (photo by Kate St. John)

For small batches, shake the fluff+seeds with coins in a paper bag or a food storage container.

Enormous batches call for enormous solutions, as demonstrated by Monarch Watch. Yow!

Since I’m not a gardener I have no advice about planting milkweed but here’s an excellent article that tells you everything you need to know: How to Germinate and Grow Milkweed Seeds by American Meadows.

UPDATE: Several people have recommended planting Swamp Milkweed instead of Common Milkweed because it’s a much easier plant. See Claire’s comment below.

p.s. The floss is beautiful but annoying when it flies around indoors. If it gets away from you, it will give you more to do this weekend. 😉

(photos by Kate St. John)

A Week of Summer and Fall

Lichen at Moraine State Park, 13 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

14 November 2020

This week in Pittsburgh began with several days of summer and ended with autumn frost. The scenery was beautiful and well worth the time outdoors.

Above, lichen clings to a dead hemlock at Moraine State Park along the Muddy Creek Trail. Below, as of Thursday 12 November 2020 the trees were not bare in Schenley Park.

The trees are not bare yet in Schenley Park, 12 Nov 2020 (photo by Rick St. John)

But this one is.

Dead tree, blue sky, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Ginkgos rapidly lost their leaves in the rain on 11 November.

Ginkgos dropping leaves in Schenley Park, 11 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Many fruits and seeds.

Porcelainberry ripening, Schenley Park, 12 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Goldenrod gone to seed, 9 Nov 2020, Churchill Valley Greenway (photo by Kate St. John)

Can you tell me what plant this is? I found it at the base of red pines at Moraine State Park along the Muddy Creek Trail. Is it parasitic?

Wrinkled club fungus, Moraine State Park, Muddy Creek Trail, 13 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

UPDATE 14 NOVEMBER 2020: Master gardener Dianne Machesney says this plant is Wrinkled club fungus (Clavulina rugosa). Judy Stark put my photo into iNaturalist and the app said so, too. Wikipedia says it is edible.

It’s colder now but there’s still time to get outdoors.

Outdoors is the safest place now that COVID-19 is spreading exponentially in the U.S. Pittsburgh Public Schools have gone fully remote again. Please wear a mask.

(photos by Kate & Rick St. John)

Outdoors in Warm November

7 November 2020

Pittsburgh’s weather has been down-and-up from 30 degrees F + snow on Monday to 70 degrees F + sun today. By the end of the week it was fun to spend time outdoors.

On Friday I noted that most trees in the City of Pittsburgh still have leaves but few were as colorful as the sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), above, in Scheney Park. American goldfinches moved among the leaves searching for seeds in the sweetgum balls.

The return of warm weather reactivated insects who were hiding from the cold. On Thursday a leaf-footed bug walked up our living room window.

Leaf-footed bug, 5 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

White-tailed deer seem to be everywhere, especially in the city parks. The rut is in progress so the deer are less wary of people and cars. Meanwhile small trees in Schenley Park show new damage after bucks rub the velvet off their antlers.

Buck rub on an understory tree, 6 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Some trees have the perfect defense against such assaults. Large thorns adorn the trunks of honey locusts (Gleditsia triacanthos). No buck rubs here!

Honey locust thorns, Schenley Park, 6 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The warm weather will continue next week. It’s (still!) time to get outdoors.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Ticks Are Still Active!

Yesterday damp weeds brushed our clothing as two friends and I walked a creek side trail in the drizzle. When we got back to our cars we checked for black-legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) and found many on our clothing. I also found one on the car seat where I’d dropped off my backpack and gloves. Yikes!

Relative size of black-legged ticks (image from
Relative size of black-legged ticks (image from

Black-legged ticks transmit Lyme disease and other bacteria that can ruin your life for a very long time so it’s important to be vigilant about them.

You don’t have to go far to find them. Of course they are in the woods but they’re also found in backyards in Allegheny County. Damp weeds are a favorite habitat. Click on this photo of Japanese barberry to read why.

Needless to say I felt itchy all over after finding the ticks. When I got home I took a careful shower and put all my clothes in a hot dryer for 10+ minutes. Really. Dryers desiccate ticks. In 10 minutes they’re all dead.

Keep yourself safe by following these guidelines –> Forewarned is Forearmed.

Don’t be fooled. Black-legged ticks are still quite active in western Pennsylvania.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Kate St. John; click on the captions to see the originals)

Nature’s Bird Food and Other October Delights

Rose hips, Frick Park, 3 October 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

This October there are plentiful fruits and seeds for migrating birds in Pittsburgh. Virginia creeper, porcelain berry, and rose hips (above) provide food for cedar waxwings and robins.

Pine siskins invaded southwestern Pennsylvania this week! Many of you are reporting them at your backyard feeders while natural food sources, such as arborvitae, have created pine siskin hotspots. Siskins force open the cones with their sharp beaks and pick out the seeds.

These arborvitae cones were on the ground at a pine siskin hotspot. Three stages are pictured: Top = Spent cones as much as one year old, Middle = Opened cones that were emptied by pine siskins, Bottom = a mix of closed, opened and spent cones.

Arborvitae cones that fell on N Dithridge Street thanks to pine siskins, 9 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The huge acorn crop in Schenley Park is attracting many blue jays, squirrels and chipmunks. Here’s what the ground looks like below the oaks at Bartlett Shelter.

Many, many acorns, Bartlett Shelter Schenley Park, 7 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

In other delights October trees, sky and shadows are spectacular.

Fall colors, Schenley Park, 7 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Long shadows, Schenley Park, 7 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Fall color in Frick Park, 6 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Dead hickory points to the moon, 8 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s a good time to be outdoors.

(photos by Kate St. John)

September Ends With Signs Of Fall

Fallen leaves at the Botany Hall fountain, Phipps Conservatory, 30 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Signs of fall increased this week as late September gave way to October.

Fallen leaves floated on the bubbling fountain at Botany Hall, Phipps Conservatory. Leaves on Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) began turning yellow.

Joe-Pye weed, Lower Nine Mile Run, Frick Park, 2 October 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is red.

Poison ivy, Ferncliff Peninsula, Ohiopyle, 28 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Queen Anne’s lace (Darcus carota) now holds its seed capsules in a bundle, each one with tiny spines that cling to passing animals, including humans.

Queen Anne’s lace seed head, 30 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

And finally, parasites take advantage of late season leaves. The red oak leaf below has two kinds of parasites: tiny galls and (I think) a fungus.

Oak leaf with galls and fungus, 29 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The weather is beautiful … after today’s fog burns off. Don’t forget to get outdoors!

(photos by Kate St. John)

(*) The fountain in front of Botany Hall is my very favorite because it invites me to lay my hands flat on the water’s surface. It bubbles up gently from a central pump and drips over the edge.

Woolly Aphids Wouldn’t Boogie Woogie

Woolly aphids that didn’t move, Frick Park, 25 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

26 September 2020

Yesterday at Frick Park I found woolly aphids that wouldn’t move. This was a disappointment because I expected them to boogie woogie (like this!). They had all the right characteristics. They were:

  • White and fluffy,
  • Clinging to narrow branches, in this case shrub-like tree trunks,
  • There was a black substance on the trunk below their colony, sooty mold that grows on their accumulated honeydew.
  • Bees and yellowjackets were feeding on the honeydew seep.

Here are two more photos showing them individually and collectively.

Woolly aphids that didn’t move, Frick Park, 25 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Woolly aphids that didn’t move, Frick Park, 25 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

I tried to get them to dance but they refused. I believe they were on alders so that would make them woolly alder aphids.

If you’d like to see them for yourself, look below eye level on slender trunks of shrubs next to Nine Mile Run about 20 steps to the left of the park bench that views the creek. Approximately here: 40.427685, -79.901373.

Maybe they’ll boogie woogie for you.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Signs of Fall

Sun rays on a misty morning in Schenley Park, 8 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 September 2020

Fall is in the air in Pittsburgh as sun rays peek through autumn mist in Schenley Park.

Below, though the large ash trees have died of emerald ash borer the small ones still put out leaves that turn unique colors. These are on their way from yellow to lavender.

White ash leaves turn a variety of colors in fall, Schenley Park, 18 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Teasel flower heads (dipsacus sp.) have dried, leaving the husk that’s a “natural comb for cleaning, aligning and raising the nap on fabrics, particularly wool.” It’s hard to imagine holding this prickly husk to do the job. Use gloves, of course.

All summer we noticed curly dock (Rumex crispus) leaves and not the flowers. Now our attention is reversed because the seeds have turned a rich brown. The stalk is ugly, however the seeds are fascinating up close, each one surrounded by the calyx that produced them. The papery wings allow them to float on water and fly a bit in the wind.

Curly dock, gone to seed, Schenley Park, 17 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The most obvious sign of fall is the temperature. 43 degrees F at dawn today. Speaking of gloves, you’ll need them when you go birding in the morning.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Nature’s Moisture Indicators

Norway spruce cone, closed (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pines cones open and close in response to moisture. Above, a closed Norway spruce cone. Below, an open one.

Norway spruce cone, open (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If a cone is closed is it wetter than one that’s open?

On Throw Back Thursday find out in this quiz: Which Cone is Wetter?

Or bypass the quiz and watch this video.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

September Poison Ivy Quiz

Photo#1: Is this poison ivy? (photo by Kate St. John)

On a walk last week I encountered two plants with poison ivy’s telltale three-leaf arrangement including a long stem on the middle leaf. One was poison ivy, the other was not.

Here they are, shown at top and below. Which one is poison ivy?

Photo#2: Is this poison ivy? (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s another clue in two more photos — leaves and fruit. One is poison ivy, one is not.

Photo#3: Is this poison ivy? (photo by Kate St. John)
Photo#4: One of the plants has samaras (photo by Kate St. John)

Poison ivy bears fruit in berries that turn white in the fall. The mystery look-alike plant bears fruit as samaras.

Quiz! For each of the four photos tell me if it’s poison ivy. (Use photo# in the caption.)

Bonus: What’s the name of the not-poison-ivy plant?

(photos by Kate St. John)